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Detroit — Darienne Driver sometimes glides off the freeway on her way to work and steers past the school where she taught fifth grade only 14 years ago.

Or rather, the ghost of the school. Greenfield Park Elementary isn't there anymore.

It's a reminder that things change. Her life, certainly: laid off twice as a Detroit schoolteacher, she's now the president and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan. And United Way as well.

For generations, United Way was the benevolent 400-pound gorilla of nonprofits. Plumped by payroll deductions, it carried $70 million budgets into the 2000s, dispensing grants for most any good cause imaginable.

Now, counting the current fiscal year, it's had three straight shortfalls against budgets at least $10 million smaller than the old days. A long list of changes in society, workplaces and even cell phones have affected a once-predictable business model.

In September, only two months after leaving her role as school superintendent in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Driver had to cut 22 United Way employees. The 171 who remain are packing for a move from a downtown high-rise to smaller quarters in the Fisher Building.

None of that has been easy, Driver said, but none of it has been a surprise — and none of it has changed the organization's focus.

"Every decision we make here," she said, "we think about the children and families who are going to be impacted."

To date, she said, no programs have been affected. Ultimately, some could be; a deficit projected at $5.6 million has been trimmed to $3.5 million, but a lot of potential good works can fall into a hole that big.

Though it's minimal consolation, the United Way chapters in other large Midwestern cities also reported losses in their most recent tax filings: $1.6 million in Milwaukee, $3.8 million in Chicago, $6.4 million in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

The news is better on the national level, Driver said; United Way Worldwide reported a slight uptick in giving across the 50 states. On the downside, the number of donors fell, leading to questions that the organization historically didn't need to ask.

"How do we speak to people's consciences?" Driver asked. "How do we speak to people's passions?"

How do they connect with Millennials and Gen Xers who can research a charity and send a donation in the time it takes for a stoplight to change, and eliminate the middleman altogether?

Driver, 40, grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where her father was a hospital administrator and her mother worked in blood services. They were United Way donors and volunteers, and when she told them she'd become the CEO in Detroit, they asked questions about the agency's fiscal year.

When she told her friends, she said, the response was, "Oh, yeah. United Way. Um ... What do they do again?"

In southeast Michigan, United Way supports some 200 programs in three focus areas — education, economic prosperity and health. Most of its work is carefully planned, though some remains spontaneous, such as a $500,000 pledge to help pay for water filtration systems in more than 100 Detroit public schools.

What it doesn't do anymore, or what its corporate supporters don't do, is muscle supervisors to badger underlings to fill out pledge cards — an approach that bred revenue but could also breed resentment.

At Ford Motor Co., said Joe Hinrichs, executive vice president and president of global operations, the modern mechanism is enjoyment.

"You don't have campaign cards and meetings anymore," Hinrichs said. "We'll have events where we auction off some things, have some games, play music. I know the Ford Credit team every year does a tricycle race with leadership."

Hinrichs, 52, is leading United Way's 2018-19 community giving campaign, with a target of $46 million. The 2016 campaign, led by the late Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, raised $93 million of its $100 million goal across two years.

The current campaign got a $2.5 million boost in January with the auction of a Ford GT Heritage Edition supercar at the Barrett-Jackson collector gathering in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Though United Way knew the auction was coming, he said, the anticipated money could not stave off the September layoffs because of another recent trend: a rise in specific giving.

"More and more companies are targeting where they want their funding to go," Hinrichs said. Undesignated gifts, which pay for operations, "have come down."

A long slide in union membership has also been problematic for United Way chapters, said Carole Leigh Hutton,  former president and CEO of United Way Silicon Valley.

Organized labor has been "a great friend" to United Way, she noted. In Detroit, for instance, while Ford, GM and FCA generate the most donor income, the UAW is in the next cluster with Lear, DTE Energy and Comerica.

Hutton, now the vice president for business development and marketing at Inforum, also ran newspapers in Detroit and San Jose, California.

"There were times at United Way," she said, "that it felt deeply analogous to the newspaper business. What you do is as deeply needed as it's ever been. Yet the business model of doing it is challenged."

Hutton can run down a list of benign or even positive things that chip away at traditional aggregators like United Way.

The startup culture means an increase in smaller companies that are less likely to become involved. Crowdfunding typically benefits individuals, but not the community at large. Millennials are increasingly involved in the workplace, and statistically less likely to support traditional nonprofits. People have grown used to seeing their dollars at work, she said.

"If you give a kid a cow, it's very visceral," Hutton said. "They may be in India, but you can see them right on the screen. It's very different from giving to something faceless but right down the street."

The counter-punch for United Way is to remind donors of the value of breadth as well as bread.

"If you invest in food insecurity with us," Driver said, "you're not helping one agency. You're helping eight."

The recent government shutdown and current GM layoffs both spotlight United Way's value to the community, she said. 

With the programs it supports and its 2-1-1 call center, where the phone rang more than 200,000 times last year, it helps with housing, utilities, food, tax and resume preparation, transportation and employment opportunities.

It was Driver's own layoff — the second one — that pushed her toward an urban superintendents program at Harvard in 2005.

The track from there led through school districts in north-central Georgia, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, where she was a United Way board member.

As a teacher, she worked part-time waiting tables at a Champps in West Bloomfield Township. In her second tenure in the area, she's renting a condo in Troy while she decides where to buy.

Her office is decorated with posters of the Little Rock Nine, singer Al Jarreau and a signed motivational message from Hank Aaron: "Keep swinging."

As the fourth CEO since 2013, she said she's working to foster a sense of stability.

She has an open-door policy, she said, and hosts weekly small-group coffee chats; staffers, who address her as "Dr. Driver," bring up everything from work issues to where their kids should attend high school.

"I'm a teacher," she said. "I learn everybody's name, first thing."

As a CEO, she's paying visits to partner agencies, learning things she can't just by reading a report. Hunkered down with Deloitte's Monitor Institute, whose self-description includes "helping to make the hard choices," she's working on a mission plan.

She's pondering the big things, like improving revenue: $46 million expected in donations, another $11 million or $12 million in government money and private grants.

Maybe foundations could contribute more, she said; the Kresge Foundation, which has given United Way roughly $3 million since 2009, said it's looking forward to meeting Driver and hearing about her plans.

She's also hoping to launch an app, one of those small things that could pay large dividends.

The United Way in Madison, Wisconsin, is working on one, she said, and she's following the progress, hoping it might help her connect with a generation that communicates with its fingertips.

"Once we move," she said, "we'll have a chance to really unpack that."

Departure day is Feb. 26. The destination is 36,500 square feet on the fifth floor of the Fisher Building, smaller and cheaper and potentially more convenient than the current 42,000 square feet on 2 ½ floors.

In Midtown, Driver said, they'll be closer to the people they serve — and closer to her old school, her reminder of the world that changes and the need that doesn't.

nrubin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

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